CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

The Mushroom at the End of the World:
On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins

By Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
2015, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford
Hardcover; 352 pages; 29 b/w illustrations
ISBN 9780691162751

“When Hiroshima was destroyed by an atomic bomb in 1945, it is said, the first living thing to emerge from the blasted landscape was a matsutake mushroom.” So begins the Prologue of a very well researched and equally well-written book about matsutake mushrooms. And I mean everything about matsutake. Well, not so much the science … though that’s in there too. Mostly about the love affair (fanaticism? addiction?) that many have, especially in Japan, for this unassuming-looking mushroom. (It’s even got a “common” common name, simply: pine mushroom.)

I should state right up front that while I really loved this book, and learned a LOT, The Mushroom at the End of the World is no mere mushroom fact book or desk reference familiar to mycophiles, mushroom mavens, and weekend wild mushroom foragers. If you’re looking for a quick read with pretty photos of “matsis” and recipes, this book is not for you.

The Mushroom at the End of the World is dense. The Prologue sets the tone: the world is changing; our populations are changing; our forests are changing. The Japanese were the first to revere the matsutake: everyone could look for them in the forests during the season; everyone could enjoy them. The forests changed; the matsutake became rare; then valuable; then a commodity. (“Individuals who buy matsutake are almost always thinking about building relationships.”) Gunboat diplomacy opened the door to Japan (if only a crack) to Western ideas and trade; the end of World War II ripped the door off its hinges. Japanese society changed dramatically, with peasants moving from the farms to the cities. The forests, scoured of firewood and edibles, went fallow. The overgrowth of species (a return to the forests’ wild state) crowded out the pines, the natural hosts for matsutake in Japan.

While the return to peace in Japan had the effect of swelling the populations of her cities, future wars in Asia (most notably, the war in Vietnam) had the opposite effect in those places. Refugees from ravaged Southeast Asian countries arrived in North America. And needed employment. Foraging came natural and so people from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam created a pipeline from the Pacific Northwest, where supplies of wild matsutake mushrooms grow in abundance, to Japan where demand is high (and where prices can be staggering: $50, even $100 for a single mushroom is no exaggeration!).

The Mushroom at the End of the World is a story about past turmoil and hope for a better future. And all along the way author Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing conveys many personal stories of people with very strong ties to the matsutake, from researchers who study the mushroom’s enigmatic physiology to wild mushroom pickers who seek the elusive and cryptic fruit bodies. As a mycologist, I’m already pretty familiar with the science of the mushroom. The ethnographical focus of the book was revelatory. The author is a professor of anthropology at UCSanta Cruz (and a Niels Bohr Professor at Aarhus University in Denmark where she co-directs Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene) and very well-researched in Asian history and socioeconomics. There was not too much science to bog down the reader; mostly it was very concise and informative. The brief overview of the mushroom’s confusing taxonomy was, for the most part, accurate. The discussions of natural selection and fungal genetics (also very concise) were very well written and sure to pique further interest in the topic for most readers. There were a few scientific missteps, like repeatedly misspelling a common wild mushroom: Gynomitra esculenta (it’s actually Gyromitra and a reviewer probably should have caught that). When discussing the European species of matsutake, Tsing says, “A Norwegian gave the Eurasian species its first scientific name, Tricholoma nauseosum, the nauseating Trich. (In recent years, taxonomists made an exception to usual rules of precedence to rename the mushroom, acknowledging Japanese tastes, as Tricholoma matsutake.).” Well, that’s not entirely true. Originally, the mushroom in question was called Armillaria nauseosa then renamed T. nauseosum. More recently, the latter name was synonymized with T. matsutake when researchers found, using DNA sequence analysis, that both were actually the same mushroom. Throughout the book Tsing discusses matsutake species from all over the world—Asia, Europe, even Africa—and focuses, of course, on North America, specifically the Pacific Northwest. I found it ironic that there was barely any mention of the mushroom being well-known from other parts of North America—indeed, the “North American matsutake” (Tricholoma magnivelare) was originally described from New York by mycologist C. H. Peck. Likewise, much is repeated about the preference of the mushroom to fruit in poor habitat, denuded of vegetation, exhausted from human over-use and that the mushroom quickly vanishes from forests that return to more pristine conditions. While this is partly true, I have many firsthand observations of matsutake in beautiful mature forests, along with woods choked with near-impenetrable vegetation, roadsides, public parks, and even wooded sand dunes in the Great Lakes region near my home. Matsutake is an enigmatic mushroom not easily pigeonholed. But these are very small quibbles that will mostly go unnoticed by the reader. All in all, The Mushroom at the End of the World is an excellent and informative book.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi